19 August 2006

Das Berliner Mahnmal

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

It has been a few years since I was last in Berlin, and among the things I was most anxious to see on this trip was the Peter Eisenman-designed holocaust memorial, formally known as “das Berliner Mahnmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas,” located just south of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate. For anyone who has not seen it, in person or in pictures, or is not familiar with the history of the idea and the project, I’ll leave the majority of that work to others; a number of articles can be found through this linked Google search. In broad terms, the design consists of a wide, square city block, filled with finely-poured gray concrete pillars of varying heights, all running out in rows; the land on which these sit is slightly rolling, creating an effect of little hillocks. There is also an “information center” that provides some history on the holocaust and the murder of Europe’s Jews, as well as on the memorial itself. While much has been made of the fact that the pillars are of varying and inconsistent sizes, this description ignores the fact that the heights do increase gradually, from the low columns on the outer edges to the high, dominating ones towards the center. People can, and do, sit on the columns on the outer edges.

After reading so much about this memorial, it was at the same time both better and worse than I anticipated. The concrete blocks are what they are; from the various articles and descriptions I have read, I had not remembered the detail that the ground rolls; the effect walking through is not one of being on an even field and that, along with the occasional tilting block, adds to the psychological impact of the design. Standing among the tall columns, I was able to look down in one direction or another and – without seeing the sights of Berlin around me – think: about the city and its history, about the war and the holocaust, and about my family’s history with all of those things. The memorial prompted me to reflect on all this, and I cannot complain about that – though, as I wrote last week, Berlin makes me think about this history anyway. It is nearly unavoidable.

However, walking around and observing other people – the kids chasing each other around, the backpacking tourists and old folks taking pictures, the (to my ears) native-speaking Germans whose families clearly came from other places (e.g., Turkey or parts of Asia) – I started to wonder whether this memorial is really necessary: whether it adds anything to the city and its history amidst so many other monuments and plaques, or if it contributes to our understanding of the horrible events it is meant to mark. This field of columns is so totally devoid of symbolism that I cannot help but wonder whether it will really be effective in the long-run. To me, and others like me, with some personal connection to this 20th century catastrophe, making us think about the holocaust is probably not a great challenge. I can only speculate about the thoughts and feelings the memorial might evoke in Germans two generations removed from the war, but given how much is taught about the war, the holocaust, and the role of Germans and Germany, they may have little problem standing amidst this field and feeling its impact. But what about the “others”: all the people for whom the events commemorated here are much more abstract, removed, perhaps even clinically historical? As much as the lack of specific symbols or imagery is an aid, allowing the mind to go where it may and without repeating the exhausted (and often exhausting) imagery common to holocaust memorials, it is also an inherent stumbling block, a gap that leaves the less-informed or less-connected visitor with no real entry point to understanding, feeling, or thinking.

There is, however, one significant symbol at this memorial: the holocaust “information center” is buried, tomb-like, underneath; we can only wonder at the intended meaning. That said, this small series of exhibitions is very well done. Instead of trying to recreate the traditional holocaust history / museum experience (also exhausted and, typically, exhausting), the curators have focused on some specific stories of German Jews and Jews from other European countries. Using these localized histories, the exhibition places the history of the holocaust in a context that I think every visitor can understand, and connects that history with the memorial above ground. I consider this a remarkable act of restraint on the part of the center’s creators, to resist what must have been a strong urge to try to recreate the scope of a Yad Vashem or a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum here in the center of Berlin. More to the point, I wonder whether the more fitting memorial might have been to place this informational component above ground: out in the open, to capitalize on the prominent position of this plot of land, to tell the world something about the holocaust in more precise terms than might be gleaned from poured concrete.

And long-term, I think an entirely different set of questions must be raised about das Berliner Mahnmal, about its permanence. Can we imagine a time when Germans, Berliners of all kinds, might want to recapture this space, as their (and our) memories evolve? This should not be taken as an act of wiping away our remembrance of the holocaust; what seems untouchable now need not always be so, and this is not holy or hallowed ground. We know that things change, that we change things in our environment as our memories evolve, and we would be foolish to deny it.

Rather, might there be a different, perhaps better kind of redemption – for Jews, for Germans, and for all people – if we can get to the point where such monuments to humanity’s mistakes are not necessary in the first place? The cliché of the post-holocaust “education” is the saying “never again,” yet the mass murder of innocents has happened with disturbing regularity in the years since 1945 (and, in some cases, before the holocaust as well). Indeed, it happens even now, with indiscriminate attacks by terrorists against innocent people from Iraq to Israel to India; it happens as a result of misguided militaries, from ... well, also from Iraq to Israel; and it happens in places like Darfur, in Sudan, the result of armed militias and racist collaborating governments.

Standing in Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, this is what was really on my mind: not the horrors of the past, but rather the horrors of the present, and the frightful future we all must face. The memorial makes no claims to being able to stop the murder of innocent people. How can it? Yet if that is not the message – the stark, cold, cast-in-concrete message – with which each visitor leaves, then the memorial, its creators, and we, the visitors – have all failed, together.


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